Our son was killed in action six months ago in Afghanistan on his third tour of duty. Mildred and I eat and sleep and dream in our small house by the old Sanford gristmill, keeping memories away like ice from a sensitive tooth. I stand by my writing desk near the bay window and watch the cold water dribble from the mill, choked with autumn leaves. It’s Sunday afternoon and Millie is watching the Friday night NewsHour on PBS that she has recorded. I sit down in a chair next to her and we fumble for each other’s hands. We watch Margaret Warner interview a Defense Department official about the War in Afghanistan.

I would pay more attention to the interview, but I know Margaret is just going through the motions. Nothing new will come to light. As Millie watches the TV, I sneak glances at her, fascinated with the concentration she can still muster this many months later. She has straight brown hair, streaked with grey. The bangs are cut straight across, just above her pale blue eyes that absorb the room’s light. Will I see you again tomorrow or the day after that, I think? Her hands, which she has now untangled from mine, have found the discolored lace of the padded rocker she is sitting in. Lately, if I move a vase to another table it only finds its way back again a few hours later.

I leave her with Margaret and sit at my writing desk and stare at the computer screen. I have a file open, filled with images of dead Iraqis along the Highway of Death at the end of the First Gulf War. I’m no longer a freelance photojournalist—I’ve given up this dangerous work, a recovering adrenaline junkie. I still miss the thrill of combat. Other pictures were taken on the rooftop of a Baghdad hotel at the start of the second Gulf War, where I was on special assignment for CNN, who unlike my temporary employer, was very dubious about the justification for war. Jimmy was just a PFC then, stuffed in a LAV-25, strung out somewhere along the borders of southern Iraq awaiting the push towards me. I make my living now writing and photographing general interest stories for small local newspapers, but it’s been slow going lately—to say the least. I’m working on a human-interest story about a homeless Vietnam vet who pushes a cart around Sanford collecting bottles and cans. He complains to anyone who will listen about what that war did to him. I’m hoping the story will help get the old man off the street.

I sigh but the sound comes out more like a gasp. Millie looks at me, wondering if the coronary she has always expected, has finally come. I wonder if she would be glad if this happened. After a while, though, her attention drifts back to the television. It’s the end of the newscast and her eyes reflect the white and blue colors of the screen, as the honor roll of American troops killed in action appear and fade in silence one after another. She turns off the recorder and the TV and sits quietly. Struggling to compose herself, she gets up and walks into the kitchen. “Poor boys,” she says.

“Men,” I say.

“What?” she asks, peeking her head back into the living room.

“Nothing.” I stare at the shelf above the radiator.

Something about the way she tries to hold herself together alarms me. A woman half a century old shouldn’t have to go through this. What are we really doing in Afghanistan? I know the official reasons stated by our government; we still believe the jihadists didn’t have a valid reason to attack us on September 11th; that they were simply intent on randomly killing Americans.

“God,” Millie exhales, breaking the silence. “Oh, man.”

I hear water dumping into the teakettle and the breath-like sound of gas igniting on the stove. The heat starts the teakettle rocking rhythmically.

The silent roll call, which I have watched dutifully with Millie many other nights, sticks in my mind. Both of our fathers fought in World War II. I inherited my old man’s green eyes and his flinty anger, which I honed in my years of chasing conflict around the globe. He continued to fight War II for years. When I was a kid, he got drunk every Thanksgiving and Christmas we spent at Uncle Al’s house, and then argued why my uncle didn’t deserve the Silver Star he got in Italy, while my father was sure he deserved more than a Purple Heart for fighting on Guadalcanal. Then he’d pile us into the Chrysler and drive ninety miles an hour, weaving all over the road, terrifying my mother, younger sister, and brother, while I pleaded with him to slow down.

Millie’s father could never stop talking about the noise. He said the bullets and the bombs and the blood and moans from the dying you could stand, if only they’d turned the volume down a bit. She reacted to his anger by trying to keep out of his way. His sudden bouts of rage, she said, were frightening. One time he grounded her, so she stuck sewing needles through a braided rug at the entrance to his study, hoping he’d step on them. Only she forgot she had done this and later went into this room and stepped on one of the needles herself, driving it deeply into her foot.

I wonder what our fathers would have thought of Jimmy? His picture sits on a shelf over a radiator not too far away from the water dispenser. He’s wearing his green Alpha uniform with the sergeant stripes on his shoulders. On his chest is the Expert Marksmanship badge and two rows of colored ribbons. It’s the same picture they used for Jimmy’s fifteen minutes of fame, although he’d received only five or six seconds. Next to his picture is the folded flag and a Purple Heart still in the box it came in. Millie watches every night for the roll call, records the program if her best friend Ruth drags her out to a movie or dinner. She is offended that he died for his country and got only a few seconds of recognition. She also blames me; she’s sure I’m as responsible as Uncle Sam for how all of this turned out.

She reminds me often of the funeral, of the friend of Jimmy’s who accompanied his body to Dover. Neither one of us had known of this friend. Jimmy had been as silent about his military service as I had been about the details of my years covering conflicts around the globe. The only thing my family knows is what they read in the papers. Sometimes I am woken up at night by a rap on the door, or I dream it anyway, and I remember the sight of the priest, who arrived just after sundown, a slight man, crumpled at the shoulders, probably from the enormity of his task. He stood on the stoop with a man in military uniform. I knew why they were there and wanted to lash out at both of them. That day I couldn’t help feeling I was staring in the face at the results of my lifetime of trying to steer Jimmy away from the external world of rage and violence. And then Millie, a few hours later, after the tears, after the shock had cooled a millionth of a degree, was yelling at me, blaming me for pushing him in that direction. I hadn’t meant to.

In the photograph, Jimmy has the same mouth as Millie. His lips bend downward in a similar way. He has my sturdy chin, with the slight cleft. His eyes are all his own. They peer out intensely at the photographer; you can sense the momentary, tense relationship he formed with whomever took his picture. There is a crease on his right cheek I had never noticed before, perhaps a shadow from an object outside the view of the photograph.

She comes in again and sets a cup of tea on an empty corner of my desk. The desk is spotless, although for years it was so cluttered that I would have to search for hours before I could find anything. I thank her politely, although that is not how I’m feeling at all. This nagging sense of rage and fear is like a tired bird searching for a place to land. She steps toward me as if to sit on my lap. She has not done this for years, so I turn my knees to accommodate her, but she laughs suddenly, reddens, and waves me away with her hand, retreating to her chair.

“Well!” she exclaims, her mood darkening suddenly. Her hand races to her mouth and presses against it like she is swallowing down an urge to gasp.

I have the impression she will say something else, but she seems to struggle with one thought, put it away, and then take out another to replace it with. She wears a faded gingham housedress like a farmer’s wife. She used to wear Fair Isle sweaters and dark twill slacks, casual loafers, her hair done up even when she was lounging around the house, although she still has the soft face of the peacenik I fell in love with in college. When she can summon the energy to speak, she complains about the upcoming tax year as if she were edging closer to calamity. She runs an accounting business out of a small office in the front of the house. The prospect of filling out forms depresses her, she says. Since Jimmy’s death, I can’t help thinking of Millie and me when we were young. I saw her for the first time on the campus of the University of New Hampshire. She wore a dark wool coat with a stiff collar pulled up against her ears. She had stared at the sidewalk in front of her as she walked past, ignoring me.

I chased her right up to the moment of our first kiss the second semester of our freshmen year; after that we could not sit in a room without touching one another. From the beginning, we also fought a lot. She was just as stubborn in a fight as she had been at eluding my advances early on. I’d make a provocative comment; she’d grow sullen and jab back at me days later with a nasty comment about something unimportant.

It is difficult for me to remember Millie or me young now without thinking about all that Jimmy has lost. Does it really matter what we were like then? We are, isn’t it true, only what reality makes of us now? For Jimmy, it is just as true; life has taken him from us, but not in death, more like a child who has wandered away and is lost, and our search for him never ends. She stares at me and presses the black cup against her quivering lips.

I press the rim of the cup against my own lips, feeling its heat burning my skin, but I don’t take it away for a few moments. I approach the old piano that no one ever plays and open the scratched cover. My fingers walk over the keys, which are badly dented and worn.

I did. I do. I should have. I want to say those three short phrases to her in rhythm with the keys, but I cannot make myself. I want to tell her all that is right with these short admonitions, but I cannot say anything. Millie. Poor Millie. What more could she do to me now? What more could I do to her? It is an effort that wouldn’t take more than a few words to utter, but I don’t seem to be able to muster the energy.

I remember when Millie gave birth to Jimmy in her early thirties, a happy surprise. Our daughter had wanted to hold Jimmy when he was a baby, but he cried in anyone’s arms but Millie’s. Jimmy’s personality was different than his sister, Amy, who was lively and optimistic. He was born four weeks premature—a smaller version of his sister at birth. He had the same crumpled face and liver red cheeks and neck and splotched tiny chest heaving in one lungful of air after another. Later, almost mystically, he became quiet and withdrawn. Millie had given him a rattle to chew on as a toddler and if it was taken away from him, he brayed long guttural sounds, reaching for it until his tiny arms and fingers were white as paper.

When he was older, we were concerned about his temper tantrums and silences. We’d find his arms bleeding sometimes, where he had picked at his skin when he was agitated. We were concerned enough we took him to see a psychologist, I remember, after I returned from Nicaragua, where I had spent three months in 1990 taking pictures of their civil war. The psychologist asked our son a string of questions. I sat quietly and answered every one of them for him silently. I wanted Jimmy to get a perfect score, although I knew there was not a perfect score on that kind of test.

The hardest question the psychologist asked sticks in my mind: “Why does oil float on the surface of water?” Jimmy was dumbfounded, pretending to be interested in the pictures and the degrees on the man’s walls. “I dunno!” he’d cried after a while, locking eyes with me. “I don’t remember!” He began to pick at the skin on his arms, which were scarred from previous bouts, and I spoke sharply to him for this behavior, as if he were being rude to the psychologist.

But the psychologist wasn’t paying attention to him any longer. He was looking at me. I could hear a silent question being asked: Richard, what are you doing to your son?

Millie is irritated by my pecking at the piano keys. I feel like grabbing her shoulders and shaking them, make her understand that events often have a life of their own that neither one of us can control.

I remember the make-believe military uniforms my paternal grandmother bought me at Christmas when I was a boy, the ones we refrained from buying Jimmy even when he asked for them. I know he resented we didn’t buy them for him, even when his friends’ parents did. Instead, I made him watch old reruns of Combat and The Rifleman. I thought that was what fathers and sons should do together, so I could explain the consequences of violence, that it wasn’t always like it was depicted on television, which tended to glorify conflict. We watched an episode of The Rifleman where Lucas McCain helps deliver a baby for a Mexican mother in a shabby room above a bar in a small pueblo, the streets of which are roamed by cutthroats and thieves. I thought Jimmy should see the empathy Connors showed the young mother in the midst of this chaos.

I couldn’t put words to it back then, but I thought I knew what I was trying to do. I saw the pictures on the walls of the men of my family dressed up in military uniforms. In my boyhood home not too far from this one, on Memorial Day I was usually the only one sitting in the corner in civilian clothes. Jimmy would often be in the opposite corner, especially as he got older, listening intently to my father and his VFW friends bragging about what they’d done in their era’s great wars, from WWII to Vietnam. I thought Jimmy needed an alternative viewpoint, another way for males in my family to see existence other than in blood and glory, one that would result in his joining his high school theater club instead of its football team. But you could tell I was in a losing battle. My father’s stories represented bravery and honor, I’m sure Jimmy felt, while my way was confusing, where I claimed to be offering reconciliation and understanding, even as I displayed my anger at him for not listening to me.


Millie comes back from the kitchen, where she went to make herself tea, and sits down and sips from her cup, her eyes shifting about as if searching for an object to settle on. Anywhere but above the radiator. She lights a cigarette and then gazes out the window.

I cannot imagine us going to Washington now to protest. But once upon a time we did. In 1971, near the end of our freshman year at University of New Hampshire, we boarded buses in Portsmouth. We rode ten hours singing peace songs; Millie and I gathered near the Lincoln Memorial with 100,000 other protesters in an effort to end the Vietnam War, feeling solidarity despite having just fought about something trivial that seemed larger than men and women dying in a conflict half-way around the world. We’d gone back to DC to anti-war rallies in the early nineties, during the First Gulf War, after I returned from Kuwait, where I’d been embedded with a Marine unit. We’d marched up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, shaking our fists at the windows of the White House. I remember a few hecklers on the sidelines had taunted us and I’d scuffled with a few of them even though Millie was appalled at my anger. “Richard,” she kept saying, “Have you lost your frickin mind?” But I didn’t care. I’d wanted to smash my fist into the middle of one of those redneck faces.

That was years after I’d openly declared to my father and his VFW friends that I was a pacifist. I took a job with Reuters after college because of their reputation of journalistic neutrality. I asked them to send me to the latest battlefront. I wanted to deconstruct human conflict. I was certain if I could prove that war was wrong and caused bad things to happen even years after the last shot was fired, I could also prove justification for why my father, who was basically a good man, often treated his family so badly.

When Jimmy was about twelve, I made him stand near my desk after I returned from some foreign country—Angola or Iraq, later Rwanda—and tell him about what I had just seen. I’d lecture him. “War sucks, Jimmy. It’s fought by violent, greedy men.” He’d often sit down near my desk, waiting for me to stop lecturing him, and peek out the window at the rocks. He was a shy boy, and he always seemed to come out of himself when he was looking at nature. He loved to watch the mallards splashing about near the mill. I’d often have to restrain myself not to shake him so he would pay attention to me. One time I caught him on my computer looking at pictures I had taken of massacred Tutsis in Rwanda. I slapped him hard across the face, and he ran out of the room cursing me in terms I was shocked to hear him utter, swear words, I realized, I often used.

Little did I know that he would end up being as spellbound by the primal fascination with war and violence as I had been. Later, after I slapped the boy, I remember telling him what war did to my father. How it made him mean and crazy so he’d hurt young boys, even if he didn’t mean to. I remember Jimmy smirking at me, his eyes amused even as his mouth was lifted up, as if he realized something I didn’t understand.

One time I followed him into his bedroom after one of my rants. He sat down on his bed and tried to ignore me, turning on his television and game controller and playing a video-game one of his friends lent him. The sound of soldiers making battle cries and rushing forward into a wall of bullets enraged me. I had to restrain myself from ripping the controller from his hands, even though a part of me was fascinated with the realism of the game, its raw power, how it worked to pull me into its violence. Conflicted, I sat down on the bed beside him. He looked over at me and smiled. I felt embarrassed, realized he saw more of the truth than I was willing to admit to myself. I remember being awed by Jimmy’s capacity to see into me, at the rage boiling just under the smiles and the reasonableness of my arguments against violence. I was violence, or at least its capacity, and he knew it.


Jimmy’s bedroom has been changed since he was killed. Neatly lined on a shelf near his bed is his baseball glove, Pappy’s Purple Heart, model cars, a dingy mirror. Stuffed animals, soiled from his dirty hands, are scattered over his bed. Millie arranged the items as if he were still a young boy, and not the young man who has been absent from our house for nearly a decade. I have never been able to ask her why, afraid she will say this is the time when we failed Jimmy.

One of his old bears, the left ear half torn off, leaks stuffing, but we haven’t bothered to clean up the droppings. His Battleship game is open and the pegs stuck in the plastic holes. When he was younger, I remember the expression on his face whenever we played. It was like I had placed my twin nemesis in the middle of a rock the boy had smashed open with a ball-peen hammer and picked out of the shards and set on a table to play with. This twin is tiny like Jimmy’s platoon of plastic soldiers. All it can see is Jimmy’s large eyes and small, intense face staring at him.

“Jesus Christ. Will you ever stop gaping at his room?” Millie says.

Her voice feels like it is inches from my ear.

“Jesus Christ yourself. Stop sneaking up on me like that.” I feel like slapping her, but I don’t. I shudder at how close I am to striking her.

I can tell there is a part of her that would like me to hit her, give her justification for calling the cops, hauling me and my anger away to jail.

My heart hammers away in my chest.

She gently pulls the door closed to Jimmy’s room, her nose almost brushing against mine, as she walks back to her chair. She says to me, “Let it be.”

Breathe, I say to myself. Breathe.

She looks up with a questioning expression, hearing the air escaping from the corners of my mouth.

I retreat to the piano stool and sit with my back against the keys. I think of crying, but that will only make matters worse. Millie no longer believes in tears. She has been dry-eyed for months.


There is a knock on the front door, which makes both of us jump. Millie’s right hand rises to the base of her throat, her hand shaking against it. I have a pang of empathy for her. I know immediately who it is. For a moment I resent the intrusion. Our daughter comes every other Sunday to check on us. The door opens without either of us getting up to answer it. Amy, with her husband and child, spill into the house to join us for dinner. The house is transformed for a moment, full of talking and laughter, jingling keys, the sound of shoes scuffing on the floor. Her husband, Ben, likes to keep me occupied with small talk about global politics. It’s as engaging as a Margaret Warner Special.

It is only now I smell the roast Millie has cooking in the oven. Her face has made that instant transition she is expert at: from the one reserved for me to the one she shows everyone else. We go into the small dining room and sit down. Framed within a nearby window, the sun has almost set; a maroon sliver hangs in the bare trees. Amy says a quick prayer. Its brevity reminds me of the vespers I went to as a young man but can no longer stand to go to, especially alone. On the occasion when I go with Millie on Sunday mornings, I think she finds consolation in the phrases our priest mutters to us, things like “mysteries of life” but they just make me feel more helpless. 

We hold hands in a circle around the table as Amy prays. I caress the back of Millie’s hand with my thumb, and she squeezes my hand tightly. Amy’s little girl calls me grandfather, which makes me want to cry. We eat dinner and then Millie serves blueberry cobbler for dessert. Amy, who is tall and thin, serves coffee, offering creamer from a silver cruet. Her husband sits dutifully in his place on one side of our daughter, hushing the child whenever she gets too noisy.

After dinner, the little one uses her mother’s old room to take a nap. I can see the open door from where I sit. The child covers herself with a blanket and then listens to our dull, vague conversation. I watch her eyes lulled to sleep. She never has trouble sleeping in our house, Amy remarks.

We all get up from the table and go into the living room. No one says anything. There is a long, awkward silence. I watch the house’s vapors envelop them. Ben eyes the front door but doesn’t move. I suddenly feel sorry for them. I’m sure away from here their house is very different. It is, after all, our suffering and not quite theirs, although I know they feel just as bad at times. I tell Amy about Millie going out a bit more to the grocery, or to have her hair done, or to spend time with Ruth. I tell them all I am writing more now. Amy’s eyes shift back and forth from Millie’s face to mine. Millie smiles, tells them I’m not making these things up. We are expecting the sun to rise in the morning. Things are improving—slowly.


When we are alone, Millie washes the dishes and I dry. Millie winces whenever a plate clacks against another, or two glasses clink together, as if I have struck her. After the dishes are done and put away, she disappears up the stairs without a word. A while later I hear the TV playing in our bedroom.

Jimmy’s picture tugs at my eyes. I feel sometimes as if I helped hide the sniper who took his life. He must have thought of me as the most confusing man in the world. It has taken his death for me to see this. The Marines must have felt like a place where he could find other men as angry and fearful and lonely as me. I can’t help thinking that a sword that was forged in my father’s heart made a line straight through me into Jimmy. But even this I am uncertain of, which is what keeps me going these days.

 Millie, for a time after we found out, no longer acted like she understood the world almost perfectly, like the numbers she reconciles for her clients. For me, I guess I no longer believe that facts and pictures tell the whole truth. Both of us struggle to understand the world we live in, how Jimmy fits in there somewhere. I suppose there was only so much we could have done, at least as far as how the world is now. So, when Margaret Warner informs us on Friday nights, “as our soldiers’ pictures become available,” we watch each of the young men and women flit past without comment. Millie and I stare as each one is allotted their few seconds. There is not another thing I can think to do.

Parker Blaney

Parker’s work has appeared in The Common and The Coachella Review. He was the co-author of When We Were Soldiers, an exhibit at ArtFusion 19464 of the personal narratives of fifteen Vietnam veterans from southeastern Pennsylvania. He is a psychotherapist in southern Maine. Earlier in his career he counseled individuals and ran groups for veterans struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. He earned his MFA from Bennington College and is at work on a novel.

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